Niyo: Caldwell could find himself back on the hot seat

John Niyo
The Detroit News

Allen Park — They vouched for him. They championed him, in some cases. And when Jim Caldwell was retained for a third season as the Lions’ head coach last winter, they cheered.

But if the Lions’ players really want Jim Caldwell and his staff to stick around, they’ll have to start showing it on the field consistently, the way they finally did late last fall when the season was lost and jobs were so clearly in jeopardy.

“It’s two ballgames,” Caldwell reminded us Monday, less than 24 hours after his team committed a whopping 17 penalties in a 16-15 loss to Tennessee in the home opener at Ford Field. “(We’re) 1-1, we’re not 1-15, so we’ve got to look at it that way and make certain that we continue to improve.

“But we’ve also got to address our issues. And we’ve got some issues, now, let’s not kid ourselves.”

One game certainly doesn’t make or break a season, he’s right about that. And the new-look offense led by Matthew Stafford certainly has shown promising signs of life through two games.

But who’s kidding whom? When the list of miscues starts sounding like a broken record with this franchise — dropped passes, fourth-quarter defensive lapses and costly penalties — it’s impossible to ignore the history here. Especially when it’s as recent as 2015, though Caldwell wasn’t interested in going there on Monday.

“Last year is last year,” he said.

Road win a must

Yet if the Lions are going to prevent this year from becoming something similar, they’re probably going to have to win another road game before the calendar flips to October. The next two are divisional games at Green Bay and at Chicago, and the Lions know can’t afford another losing month to start a season — not if they want to finish with a winning record.

And presumably, that’s what it’ll take to keep this thing intact, right? A winning season with a young, retooled roster might not be a success, but it would be viewed as progress, perhaps, in the eyes of ownership and a new front office.

Abdullah's injury tops Lions' list of woes

Look, Caldwell’s shortcomings are obvious, whether it’s the time-management issues that show up like clockwork on game days or punting from inside the opponent’s 40.

But Sunday, so were his players’ faults as the Lions watched all the good vibes they’d created with that dramatic season-opening win in Indianapolis drowned by a flurry of yellow flags. Asked about the mood of the team Monday, tight end Eric Ebron scoffed, “You ever lost before? That’s the mood. You lose a game, the mood is bad.”

So was the call that might’ve lost them that game Sunday, of course. The Lions now lead the league with 25 penalties for 208 yards, and the vast majority of those were earned. But Ebron’s offensive pass interference penalty was a phantom call that erased a touchdown, and the third-year tight end — off to a strong start after missing the exhibition season with an injury — wasn’t happy about it.

“We all saw the same picture, and it is what it is,” he said. “The refs made the call that they believed what it was, and we have to live with it, deal with it. Done with that.”

But they can’t be undone by it, and Sunday’s trip to Lambeau Field will provide the first real test for this team.

Moves are in order

Last season, an unwillingness to bench some veteran starters on defense helped make things worse for the Lions as they struggled out of the gate and Caldwell & Co. stubbornly stuck to their guns.

This time, it’s some of the newer faces, and it’ll be interesting to see, for starters, if they make a move on the offensive line, where last year’s first-round pick, Laken Tomlinson, seems overmatched at left guard.

“There’s no concrete rule that tells you after one game, or after two games, you make a move like that with a young person, so it just kind of depends,” Caldwell said Monday.

What happens next for this team also will depend on who’s in uniform. Because after an unusually clean bill of health to start the regular season, the injuries are quickly mounting.

Most notably, DeAndre Levy is out, officially listed with a quadriceps injury, his return up in the air at a position. (Caldwell oddly refused Monday to rule out the possibility Levy could be done for the season.) Defensive end Ziggy Ansah, the other linchpin in Teryl Austin’s defense, left after two plays Sunday with a possible high-ankle sprain. And now running back Ameer Abdullah reportedly is headed to Charlotte to see Dr. Robert Anderson, the renowned orthopaedic surgeon, for a second opinion on his injured foot.

Caldwell won’t use that as an excuse, though, saying the Lions simply have to make sure “we’ve got guys that will step in and do the job, which we do.” That’s a point his new boss, general manager Bob Quinn, has made as well, citing the Lions’ improved roster depth as his biggest offseason accomplishment.

So if this team can’t get the job done soon, taking advantage of a favorable early-season schedule, they’ll find themselves right where they don’t want to be — again. And as Caldwell said Monday, “Teams that lose end up talking about, ‘What if,’ and all that kind of stuff. We’ve got to make our own breaks.”

If they don’t, it’s a safe bet management will feel the need to fix what’s broken.